Is Hiking Dangerous? Evaluating the Crazy Risks and Awesome Rewards of Hiking

Strap on boots and wander off into the wilderness – what could go wrong? While images of hiking often portray idyllic, carefree rambles through alpine meadows, the reality involves some level of risk.

According to statistics gotten from Gitnux, hiking-related accidents account for 14% of all accidents reported in national parks in the U.S.

Not just that, between 2011 and 2015, 885 individuals suffered death or injury from a fall or trip while hiking within the United States. And in 2017, 117 people died from hiking, camping, or backpacking accidents in the United States.

From this, you can see that the straight up answer to the question, “Is hiking dangerous?” is, “sure, hiking can be dangerous” with a great emphasis on can be.

Anytime you step off of paved roads and clearly marked trails, the potential for uncertain terrain, inclement weather, injury, and other hazards arises.

However, danger is not necessarily destiny on the trail. With proper preparation and precaution, the risks of hiking can be mitigated and managed.

This in-depth guide provides an honest assessment of hiking’s dangers while offering tips to increase safety, confidence and enjoyment in the backcountry.

Let’s get to it.


Inherent Risks and Hazards of Hiking

To make informed decisions about managing potential hiking dangers, let’s first examine the most prevalent risks:

1. Environmental Hazards

Weather, wildlife, insects, poisonous plants, and other natural hazards can quickly turn treacherous:

Hypothermia – Layers, emergency blankets, and ability to safely retreat help prevent chilling from wet cold.

Lightning – Avoid peaks and ridges during storms. Descend promptly when thunder roars.

High winds – Tree fall, blowing debris, and losing balance are risks, especially above treeline.

Biting or stinging insects and ticks – Permethrin treated clothes, bug spray, and frequent tick checks help minimize exposure.

Poison ivy, oak, sumac – Recognize and avoid these common rash-causing plants. Long sleeves and pants limit contact.

Wildlife encounters – Make noise, keep clean camp, hang food properly, and know what to do in rare aggressive confrontations.

Falling rocks or ice – Helmets protect from loose rocks on steep slopes. Avoid areas with overhead hazards.

Avalanche – Check conditions and terrain factors. Recognize avalanche-prone slopes and unsafe snow conditions. Travel prepared with beacon, probe, and shovel in risk areas.

Also Read: Is Hiking Good for Your Brain? 7 Powerful and Proven Mental Health Benefits from Hiking


2. Physical Injury Risks

The challenging terrain and physical difficulty of hiking poses injury risks, especially over long distances:

Falling – Uneven footing, loose rocks, wet surfaces, scree, and obstacles can lead to slips, trips, and falls resulting in sprains, fractures, and impact injuries. Trekking poles improve stability.

Joint pain – Repeated impact and overloaded packs strain knees, ankles, and hips over miles. Light packs and trekking poles help minimize pressure.

Blisters – Moisture, friction, and poor fitting shoes commonly cause painful blisters on long trails. Synthetic socks, gaiters, and properly broken-in footwear reduce blister incidence.

Sprains and strains – The inherent risk of uneven trails can lead to rolled ankles, twisted knees, and muscle pulls. Ankles braces, hiking poles, and fitness provide support.

Overuse injuries – Too much hiking too soon causes repetitive stress issues like stress fractures, tendonitis, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis as the body breaks down. Conservative mileage build-up prevents overuse syndromes.


3. Situation Hazards

Traversal of remote wilderness, miles from help, poses potential hazards and risks worth planning for:

Getting lost – Losing the trail or orientation in bad weather could prove life-threatening. Carrying maps, compass, GPS device, and knowing navigation skills reduces chances of getting lost.

Hypothermia – Wet, windy conditions can sap body heat rapidly. Bringing emergency blankets, extra insulating layers, and ability to make fire helps prevent hypothermia.

Dehydration – Inadequate hydration in hot, dry climes can cause dizziness, headaches, weakness and impaired judgement. Timely water and electrolyte intake keeps the tank filled.

Falls and injury – A sprained ankle or fractured wrist miles from the trailhead requires ingenuity and grit to self-rescue. Whistles, mirrors, and satellite messengers provide summoning help options.

Altitude sicknessAcute Mountain Sickness (AMS) impacts those who ascend too high too quickly without proper acclimatization. Gradual increase in sleeping elevation minimizes AMS.

Severe weather – Lightning, high wind, whiteout conditions, and blizzards can be deadly. Checking forecasts, reading weather signs, and being prepared to hunker down avoids tragedy.


4. Human Error Hazards

Perhaps the largest risks come from human-controlled factors and lapses in judgement:

Poor planning – Inadequate research, fitness, skills, gear, and provisions for a route amplifies risk. Thorough trip planning and honest assessment of abilities lessens trouble.

Traveling solo – Hiking alone leaves no margin for error and no assistance if injured. Traveling with others and ensuring check-in plans provides a safety net.

Fatigue and hurrying – Pushing pace dangerously fast or miles beyond exhaustion multiplies chances for accidents and injury. Reasonable distances and paces avoid fatigue risk.

Lack of awareness – Inattention increases falling, stepping in potholes, impacting overhanging branches, and other mishaps. Active attention and focus reduce basic risks.

Poor technique – Improper hiking techniques like improper downhill foot placement, heavy heel striking, and imbalanced packs add injury risk. Good form, fitness, and packing balance technique boost safety.

Insufficient gear – Heading out with inadequate footwear, clothing, lighting, nutrition, or navigation tools courts problems. Double-checking all essentials prevents lack of necessities.

Lack of skills – Deficient navigation abilities, climbs beyond climbing skill, risky stream crossings, and survival know-how boost hazard. Competent skills grown slowly reduce risk exposure.

Also Read: Is Hiking Good or Bad? A Balanced Look at the Pros and Cons of Hiking


5. Psychological Factors

Mindset and mood also impact hiking risks:

Complacency – Under-respecting risks leads to lack of preparedness. Assuming all will go smoothly leaves no margin of safety. Staying vigilant and humble prevents complacency traps.

Overconfidence – Overestimating hiking abilities raises chances of routes proving beyond current skill and fitness levels. Conservative incremental progress prevents overconfidence mishaps.

Distraction – Taking eyes off the trail to gaze at scenery or being lost in thought increases falling risk. Staying focused on footing and obstacles reduces missteps.

Anxiety or panic – Fearfulness or acute anxiety clouds judgement and impairs executive function while increasing cardiac risks. Developing hiking confidence over time via experience prevents panic responses.

Also Read: Is Hiking Stressful? Evaluating the Mental Health Benefits and Demands of Hitting the Trail


Weighing Risk Versus Reward

As the extensive list of potential risks reveals, hiking does entail some level of inherent danger. Short of staying home on the couch, a certain amount of uncertainty comes with any adventurous activity.

However, the catalogue of risks should not dissuade most people from recreating outdoors if done responsibly.

The incidence of hiking accidents, injuries, and peril remains extremely low considering the millions of participants.

For example, the probability of incurring a life-threatening injury hiking is exponentially lower than driving. The hazards simply warrant awareness and preparedness.

And ultimately, the profound rewards of communing with nature, witnessing beauty, achieving goals, and forging bonds balances the risk equation for avid hikers.

Taking reasonable precautions allows gaining the plethora of hiking’s upsides while mitigating the downsides.


Cultivating a Safety Mindset and Risk Management

Rather than living in fear of potential hiking hazards, the most sustainable mindset involves cultivating keen risk awareness balanced with trust in one’s abilities.

Safety ultimately traces back to our decisions and judgements much more than arbitrary fortune. Here are keys to develop a resilient risk management mindset:

Get objective data – Don’t inflate vague worries. Learn actual rates of crime or injury for a given trail. Familiarize with recent incident reports. Information provides perspective.

Accept uncertainty – The unknown is unavoidable in nature. But with preparation and spare capacity we become antifragile enough to navigate uncertainty.

Know, but don’t fixate on, risks – Staying aware of hazards without ruminating creates a poised confidence to respond. Hyper-focusing magnifies fear.

Build hard and soft skills – Hard skills like navigation and first aid and soft skills like caution and focus are symbiotic. Together they provide security.

Hike within abilities – Attempting routes far exceeding current fitness or navigational competencies multiplies trouble potential. Conservative progress prevents “summit fever”.

Trust intuition – If conditions don’t feel right, heed that inner voice and adjust plans accordingly. Innate instincts offset analytics.

Always scout options – Thinking through contingency plans and bailout options provides reassurance and agency. Mentally pre-hike the “what ifs”.

Accept responsibility – Don’t abdicate safety to guides or partners. Personal preparation and judgement call the shots. Self-reliance reinforces confidence.

Focus on process – Worrying about possibilities distracts from executing the necessary techniques, foot placements, and decisions within one’s control.

The path to managing hiking hazards lies more in building skills incrementally, hiking within abilities, planning thoroughly, and staying focused rather than fretting about frightening “what if” scenarios that rarely manifest. Preparation aligns risk with rewards.

Also Read: Is Hiking Climbing? 7 Huge Differences Yet Crazy Similarities


FAQs: Is Hiking Dangerous


Is hiking more dangerous than other sports?

Hiking is generally less dangerous than higher risk sports like climbing, kayaking or skydiving. But all outdoor sports carry some degree of risk that can be managed with proper precautions.

What are the most common risks of hiking?

The most common hiking risks include sprains/strains, blisters, dehydration, getting lost, and weather exposure. Wildlife encounters, falls, and rockfall are rarer dangers.

How dangerous is hiking alone?

Solo hiking is riskier than group hiking. Hiking alone means there’s no one to assist if you’re injured, stranded or lost. Shared risk is safer.

Can hiking be life threatening?

In rare cases yes, hiking can be life threatening. Dangers like extreme weather, falls, hypothermia, medical issues can prove fatal if not addressed quickly.

Is hiking safe for kids and seniors?

Kids and seniors can safely enjoy hiking but may need modified trails and gear. Evaluate fitness levels and pick appropriate, well-marked trails.

Should you hike with bear spray?

In bear country bear spray is a smart precaution. Proper food storage, noise making, and maintaining distance are other deterrents.

Is hiking safer than city walking?

Overall hiking is safer thanks to lower traffic risk and crime rates. But natural hazards call for preparation. Both activities can be done safely with awareness.

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